East Lansing — A win will be all the proof Michigan State needs.
That’s the way junior linebacker Andrew Dowell looks at things as Michigan State prepares to head to Columbus on Saturday to take on Ohio State in a game that could decide which team wins the Big Ten East and heads to the conference championship game.
For Dowell, a native of North Ridgeville, Ohio, near Cleveland, there is no quest to prove the Buckeyes should have pursued him more heavily coming out of high school. And that seems to be the feeling most of the 26 Ohio natives on Michigan State’s roster have.
“That’s not something we’re looking at too much,” Dowell said. “We beat them my freshman year and they got the win last year, so if we’re 2-1 against Ohio State that is a statement in itself.”
So no, those from Ohio who never garnered a scholarship offer aren’t out to show the Buckeyes or coach Urban Meyer what they’re missing. No, those players are far more interested on keeping Michigan State headed down the path toward a Big Ten title.
“It’s definitely a game all of us Ohio guys are hyped up for,” Dowell said. “It’s a great opportunity because it has a double meaning for us. We can elevate ourselves and put ourselves in position to get to the Big Ten Championship, so we look at it as a must-win and are looking forward to getting after it.”
Michigan State has done its share of getting after it against Ohio State.
Since Urban Meyer took over in 2012, the Spartans are the only Big Ten team with more than one win over the Buckeyes, beating them in the Big Ten title game in 2013 and winning in Columbus two years ago on the way to the College Football Playoffs. That win in 2015 combined with the win in 2011 means Michigan State has won in its last two trips to the Horseshoe.
It’s no mystery why Michigan State, a team that recruits big chunks of its roster from Ohio, has done so well against the Buckeyes.
“I think that’s it; you go back,” said coach Mark Dantonio, himself a native of Zanesville, just less than an hour from Columbus. “Everybody from your hometown knows you’re coming and knows you’re playing, and you just get yourself a little bit more ready.
“I don’t know, I don’t think that’s any different than playing up here in this state or going back and playing from wherever — going down to play Georgia when Darqueze Dennard was playing for us and Keith Mumphery, they were very excited to go play against Georgia in the Outback Bowl. I just think that’s a natural thing.”
It’s not unique that plenty of teams in the Midwest have players from Ohio. It’s a fertile recruiting area that all Big Ten teams hit heavily.
The difference for Michigan State is they often have had players that felt overlooked by the Buckeyes. Whether it was running back Le’Veon Bell or quarterback Connor Cook, the Spartans have had their share of players from the state that felt slighted and that makes things a little different when they head back to Columbus.
Linebacker Chris Frey, from Upper Arlington, Ohio, was one of those players and admits it adds a little fuel.
Spartans Chris Frey, David Dowell, Brian Lewerke and Andrew Dowell talk about this week’s game vs. Buckeyes. Matt Charboneau
“It’s huge. It’s an opportunity for us to go out and show what we can do as a team, but individually as well,” Frey said. “A lot of guys, some were recruited and some offered by Ohio State, a lot of guys weren’t. It’s an opportunity for us to show we should have been recruited by them, but at the same time we’re excited to be here and playing against them.”
And while many of the 26, including 10 projected starters, might have thought one day about playing in the scarlet and gray, none have regrets about where they’re at.
“I think I came to the best school in the country and play for the best coach in the country,” said safety David Dowell, also from North Ridgeville. “So, it wasn’t about staying in state for me, it was more about finding the fit for me and my family.”
It’s the same for Dantonio, who was the defensive coordinator at Ohio State under Jim Tressel when the Buckeyes won the national championship. He’s got plenty of ties to Ohio, not only coaching for the Buckeyes and growing up in Zanesville, but he’s spent plenty of his career there.
He’s been the head coach at Cincinnati while having assistant coaching stints at Youngstown State, Akron and Ohio University. But he also spent six years as the defensive backs coach at Michigan State, one as the associate head coach.
So did he ever dream of being the head coach at the biggest school back home?
“I was just trying to make it, man,” Dantonio said smiling. “I was defensive coordinator and I was happy where I was at and then went to U.C. and started as head coach.
“I also had aspirations to maybe come here someday.”
Here, of course, is Michigan State. And 11 seasons in, Dantonio’s now spent more time with the Spartans than at any other stop in his career.
So yeah, it’s a homecoming of sorts, but Dantonio knows where he belongs.
“It is a little bit like going home,” he said, “but I’m not going there in red, scarlet. There is a difference.”